Beliefnet
Most of the media coverage of the Ten Commandments of God group has assumed that what happened in Uganda was a mass suicide. This fits the popular notion--fueled by events like the Heaven's Gate tragedy--that mass suicides are typical cult behavior. And there is some evidence to support that notion in this case. Members of the group apparently destroyed worldly possessions, said good-bye to friends and relatives, indulged themselves with meat and drink, and prepared their church building for an event of great importance.

But there is at least as much evidence--perhaps more--that what happened in Uganda was mass murder.

The information is changing constantly, but here's what we know so far. It appears that during the last week, the members of the group at Kanungu began to prepare for their deliverance at the hands of the Virgin Mary. They slaughtered cattle, purchased a large supply of Coca-Cola, and indulged themselves with food. They also began to stock up on gasoline, ostensibly for fueling a new generator they had purchased for their property. Some members sold property and destroyed personal items. On the evening of March 15, they gathered for a party at which the beef and cola were consumed.

Then, on the morning of March 17, they gathered at their meeting place, which had been prepared ahead of time by boarding up the windows. Included in the assemblage were members and their children, possibly a few prospective members or visitors, and several police officers monitoring the group. After a period of singing and chanting, there was an explosion and fire. The doors had by this time also been barricaded, and no one escaped.

There has been no indication that any poisonous or narcotic substances had been consumed by group members prior to the fire. There is as yet no data to indicate whether the explosion, smoke inhalation, or the fire was the ultimate cause of most of the deaths, as the bodies were burned beyond recognition. More than 300 are dead; the number is likely to approach 500 and may be higher.

Still, the final demise of the group probably can best be termed an event of murder-suicide. The primary question remains (with no likely resolution in the immediate future) the number murdered versus those who committed suicide. At one end, the 78 minors who are known to have died were unable to give their consent and were obviously murdered. On the other end, the leaders and their assistants who made the final arrangements for the fire and then died in it obviously committed suicide.

Much data suggests that the incident was primarily a case of mass murder by the leadership of the group. It is possible that, as a whole, the group had gathered willingly in expectation of some form of supernatural deliverance, but were met instead with a trap prepared by the leaders. Normally in the period before a mass suicide, clues can be found. But in this case, many of the typical signs were missing. There were few rumors that an act of suicide was planned, family members and government observers seemed unconcerned, and no members appear to have left their children at home. No members in Kanungu refused to attend the final service, as usually happens in such cases. Four current police officers--sent to monitor the group--and two former policemen died in the fire.

Before the event, one nun had traveled through the area announcing that the Virgin would appear on March 17. One man, not a member of the group, whose wife and children died in the fire, is quoted as being told by his wife that something would happen on March 15, but if nothing happened, she would return. This suggests that while some knew of the planned fire, many did not.

All the leaders of the group were seen in town shortly before the fire and are believed to be among the dead. But among those who did not die were the wife and son of Kibweteere, who received a letter from him on March 16 exhorting them to carry on with the religion, as he and members of the group would die the next day. He also sent a suitcase of church literature, hymnals, and prayer books. There is some suggestion that strong economic pressure had been placed on Kibweteere by a shortage of resources to support the basic needs of those living at the group's center in Kanungu.

A second view that had run through much of the news coverage, and was adopted in the very first reports from Reuters and the BBC, suggests that the event was basically a mass religious suicide. This view is consistent with the actions of the group during the last week: destroying worldly possessions, saying good-bye to friends and relatives, indulging themselves with meat and drink, and the preparation of the church building. This view is also consistent with an unverified report that members had covered themselves with parafin and gasoline before the fire was started.

The suicide hypothesis has been strengthened by the discovery of bodies of people who had died before the fire and been hastily buried in former latrines under freshly poured concrete. They may have been dissident members who did not want to participate in the fiery end.

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